Food-justice activists want city to lift restrictions on urban ag

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Ralph Soviero & Ross Lackey
Ralph Soviero (left) and Ross Lackey

by Jordan Green

A farmer and a food-justice advocate are prodding the city of High Point to relax regulations against urban agriculture to allow more residents to raise food for themselves and their neighbors.

Slowly but surely the city of High Point is loosening restrictions on urban agriculture as the city comes to grips with the reality of increasing food hardship and cultural shifts from consumerism to self-sufficiency.

Elected officials and staff are reviewing city code and ordinances, and discussing potential changes about everything from allowing the slaughter of chickens to relaxing the density requirements for livestock raised on urban lots. A citizen working-group received a favorable hearing from the city’s prosperity & livability committee on Aug. 12. Headed by Councilman Jason Ewing, the committee directed staff to work with the citizens to develop a proposed set of text amendments that would ultimately come before city council for consideration.

“The biggest thing is the legal sale of eggs,” said Ross Lackey, who operates Kapuka Farms on the east side of the city. “In the High Point ordinance it’s illegal to sell eggs. I don’t think anyone in the city has a problem with changing that. It’s straightforward that we need to change it. I’ve got lots of chickens. I’m trying to establish production of free-range eggs. It’s hard to start a business when you keep running up against restrictions.”

Lackey is a member of the urban-agriculture working group of the Greater High Point Food Alliance, which brought the recommendations to the city.

The Aug. 12 meeting also included a discussion about potentially lifting the prohibition against slaughtering chickens on privately-owned residential lots in the city in order to allow people to eat the food they’ve raised.

“The prosperity & livability committee was very receptive and asked us to work with staff,” said Carl Vierling, the executive director of the food alliance and a member of the urban-ag working group. “I think the city of High Point is open to ideas. And that’s a great thing.”

Ewing said he found most of the working group’s requests and recommendations to be “valid.” The city already loosened restrictions on chickens and beekeeping a year ago, he said, but he thinks further changes might be warranted.

The urban-ag working group is proposing to change the maximum density of fowl, including chickens, ducks and quail and reducing setback requirements for livestock. The group notes that the city of Winston-Salem requires livestock to be kept 25 feet from the property line, while the distance varies from 25 to 50 feet in Greensboro depending on the size of the lot. High Point’s development ordinance requires a 200-foot setback when livestock is the principal use, but only 100 feet when the animals are kept on the property where someone lives.

Ewing also expressed a willingness to consider a change that would make it easier to breed chickens. The city ordinance current prohibits keeping roosters.

“I think that’s going to come up,” Ewing said. “If someone is going to have eggs, they’re going to need to have roosters and chickens.”

On other items brought to the city by the working group, Ewing said the requested activity was actually already allowed under city ordinances.

“Over the years we’d been talking to the planning department, we had a little storage building on our farm and we asked the city if it was legal, and they said, ‘No,’” Lackey said. “We thought we needed to change the ordinance. Now we’re being told yes, that it is legal. That’s good if some clarity is coming from it.”

Vierling and Lackey both project an upbeat attitude about the process of working with the city to amend city code and ordinances to allow more people to raise produce and livestock to feed themselves, but Lackey is slightly more wary, having been singed by local regulations in previous run-ins with the city.

“I just want people to be able to grow food or livestock to feed themselves,” Lackey said. “If someone has a goat or a chicken and they’re good at [animal husbandry], and they say, ‘I can make a little bit of money at this,’ they should be able to do it. We’re not trying to get one over. We just want people to be able to feed themselves and their neighborhood. We want it to be legal from top to bottom.”

A year ago, Lackey ran afoul of city regulations by setting up a farm stand on Saturdays to sell his produce in the parking lot of his father’s business, which is located on a heavily traveled street with good visibility. After wrangling with the city to try to find an accommodation, he eventually decided he would be better off selling directly to consumers and to restaurants.

“It’s probably an aesthetic problem to the people in charge; that’s not the look they want,” Lackey said. “We’re in the same situation as Detroit — we have no industry and jobs here. We have a huge city that’s vacant. We’ve got to take some risks. The people with power and resources are so risk averse.”

The change Lackey is seeking is not only legal, but also cultural.

“It would be wonderful if pigs were legal — we could sell to local restaurants,” he said. “I want to connect the dots. It’s not okay to outlaw the growing of pigs [in the city] and push it off to eastern North Carolina, where they pollute the rivers. If there are any problems we can deal with them together. To me, it’s about breaking down the disconnect with food. We celebrate Kepley’s BBQ and Carter Brothers, but we’re not thinking about where the pig actually comes from. If we’re not allowed to raise pigs in High Point, then we shouldn’t be allowed to buy pork in Harris Teeter.”

Another frustration cited by Lackey is the creaking speed of the city bureaucracy when it comes to authorizing new initiatives.

“We’ve been working on English Road with West End Ministries; we’re turning this [city-owned] lot into a community garden,” Lackey said. “We’ve been waiting on the city for six months to get the lease. We missed the growing season. Right now we’re clearing it.”

Taking a cue from urban planner Andres Duany, who visited the city in 2013 and proposed a regulatory “pink zone” to promote entrepreneurial incubation, Lackey wants High Point to lift restrictions to allow urban agriculture to thrive.

“There are 350 properties out there that the city owns,” he said. “They’re paying someone to take care of them, or they’re just growing up. You start 20 farms; so what if 75 percent fail? You’d still have three or four more farms than you did before. Having a lot of lawyers involved, that works in the corporate world, but on a small scale it doesn’t work. It takes too much energy to do the stuff that isn’t growing food. Growing food should be the hardest part. Building gardens should be the hardest part.”

  • Observer

    We’ve had successful farmers in High Cost Point for years.
    Seeking the same the eventual crop, they’ve all learned to cultivate council as they farm the public purse with one new scheme or another.
    Another cause celebre, another draw on a budget that the citizens can no longer afford, and changes that only the connected really want or really benefit from.